Wednesday, April 05, 2006

How do You Organize Your E-Mail?

Last Friday, a long-awaited event finally occurred: After 8 semesters of toiling away at ETH Zurich, I finally had all the credit points to start my working on my MS thesis.

The topic: How can we better prioritize, categorize, filter and search your e-mail?

Thanks to my fantastic professor and advisor, we were able to keep the topic a bit vague and leave lots of room for exploration. I have plenty of ideas, but, of course, I won't give them all away yet.

As this blog has built up a small but respectable audience (30000+ pageviews / month, without counting feeds), I was hoping to get some input from you guys:

How do you organize your e-mail?

  • Do you keep all your e-mail in your inbox, or meticulously sort it into folders?

  • Do you use flagging, labeling or keep mails unread to make sure you get to them?

  • Do you prioritize reading and answering e-mails by person or by topic?

  • Do you have carefully fine-tuned inbox rules like Bill Gates, or do follow the GMail philosophy or "search, don't sort?"
Write a comment and let me know, especially if you're doing something extravagant in any of these categories! Readers have been a bit shy in the past, so here's the threat: If no one responds, I'll set up an online poll.


mtm said...

I use Thunderbird with the vertical view (email to the right). Pressing F8 helps me to toggle between viewing the email contents and not (leaving more space for the list).
I use threading in all folder and labeling. Red for important stuff, green for low priority. No other colors yet. It works, my brain just skips the green completly.

No flagging. Actually I hide the flag and priority column.
An email client needs to show me the date column in very short format. If it's today only the time for example. If it's yesterday, why not say so?
Sort by date. I use the quicksearch to find receipient.
I have a very large unsorted and usually untouched 'archive' subfolder.
One question you should add is if people also view newsfeeds and/or newsgroups in the email client ( I don't). And if they have to scroll in the folder panel.

Last, I should point you to the IBM research done in 2003 regarding email handling.


bálint said...

My email habits might be simple, but here they are:

I use IMAP and thunderbird, and pretty often the web based interface of my email account. I use folders only for separating email list, never label, or prioritize emails. I am pretty much reading/answering my emails a dozen of times a day, so I have no problems to remember answering them. And I use search a lot...

Additionally, I get quite a lot of emails which are not sent personally to me, but they are still not really spam (like email lists, but not just). If there would be a way to somehow strip them down automatically (besides filters), that would be cool.

Gabor said...

mtm: Thanks for your comments. Very interesting stuff going on at IBMR - thanks for the link.
Also, the F8 trick is awesome, didn't know that one.

I'm not too concerned about newsgroups newsfeeds now. It seems to me like you wouldn't want to have that going to your inbox anyway.

How many e-mails do you get per day? Do you ever use full-text search?

A friend said...

How do I organize e-mails? You know the answer: I don't. I read daily e-mails and then search for old ones that just pile up.
I think the online poll should be: if you could give up e-mail, what would you miss about it?
Getting people to respond to e-mail, including myself, is definitely a challenge. I like how Bill Gates has his secretary write a report on his e-mails from people he doesn't know. The question is, how do you get beyond his inbox, and get his attention? Is it still possible to send a telegram?

F said...

I've got an IMAP account with some server-side rules, to sort my mail into folders. That has the effect that I almost never see mail which has been sorted away (For this reason, only some of the newsletters I've subscribed to a long time ago are sorted in there). Most of my email is just lying in my main inbox, which as of the moment contains about 20 000 emails.

I use Thunderbirds "Virtual folder" feature. That way, I can see new emails chronologically as they arrive in my inbox, as well as "by-person". Only persons having sent 1000+ emails to me get their own folder though. for other stuff, I just use the search box in Thunderbird (server-side searching in IMAP accounts would be cool, if I wouldn't have so many emails. It takes ages to search for anything). I would love to be able to add single emails to a virtual folder, because not all emails by one person can be catched by a filtering rule.

I don't use flagging or anything. I tend to think that I leave emails that I still need to answer/work on marked as unread. But my "unread" pile has aggregated to 870 emails at the moment. Most of which are just mailinglists and newsletters which I'm to lazy to cancel my subscription. My oldest unread email is probable several years old.

Once every several months I go an a task to "clean out" my unread emails and manage to cut them down to about 160.

But altogether, that's a quite unsatisfying situation.

Alternative ways of reading my emails are my palm, which is connected by 9.6kbit/s over my old cell phone. But more often, I just connect to the IMAP server via a webmail interface.

I never delete email, I manually sort out spam into an extra subfolder so I can use it later to train a spamfilter should I someday decide to install one.

My main problem as of this moment is: once an email scrolls out more than 1 or two screens from my current viewscreen. It'll never get answered. Be it flagged or not.

T said...

All my mail from various accounts and domains gets forwarded to a GMail account. There, most spam (300 a month) is filtered and most newsletters and automated mails are autolabeled and skip the inbox.

Additionally, I use a poor man's blackberry: Every mail that gets to the GMail inbox is forwarded to my phone as a text message. This way, I can read see the sender and subject instantly on my phone and if it's important, I can read the entire message on the road via WAP. At 3 Euro/month, this saves a lot of money.

fad said...

I use GMail for all my private mail. I really like it a lot, but it's a pity they don't have some more advanced features concerning filtering. Most important I would like to have a bayesian filtering that adds labels. Joel Spolsky wrote once that an intern I think developped something like that for FogBuzz. Adding labels based on subject or sender filtering alone sucks. As I prefer to have an empty Inbox the slogan "Search don't sort" doesn't work for me cause like this I often get mail that I have to add a label to myself (combobox) than press Archive.
Baysian filtering and labeling mails would do this for me.
Btw: here is link
The Road to FogBugz 4.0: Part II and good luck with your MS Thesis.

ralfgugginger said...

using outlook.
- rules (lot, about 30 rules, most of them used to move to a spec. folder)
- important mails (which result in tasks for me) are added via drag and drop as outlook tasks
- working heavily with flags
- sorting folders by "sent to me on TO line", "sent do me on CC", "sent to me alone"
- searching in outlook via lookout

Gabor said...

Thanks so much for all the input. You'll likely hear more about how it goes in future posts.

fad: I like Ben Kamens paper as well; some good ideas in there. Also, if you're looking for a good read, I recommend Paul Grahams "A Plan for Spam", which is cited several times by Kamens.

fad said...

Yes "plan for spam" is the classic.
Personally I'm not that much interested in this stuff.
I just wished I had a tool working the way I want, but I have no intention to reimplement GMail just because of this.
So I kind of hope you told someone at Google that the world (me) needs this feature and next week I'll read "new feature: baysian filtering" when I open my GMail account ;-)

nikhil said...

Hi there,
I mainly use the online interface at ETH (Outlook Web Access). I leave the messages I need to work on unread and use the nice filter feature 'Show Unread' so they dont get forgotten on the second/third page. Plus, the right-click options (which most web interfaces lack) are very useful. I rarely use folders and rely on search (which is really slow, unfortunately).
All the best with your thesis!